Thursday, June 25, 2009

Reflections of a Road Trip: Orthodoxy in the Heartland

On my recent loop through the Midwest and upper South, I took opportunity, whenever possible, to visit Orthodox churches and institutions along the way. While I have been fortunate to visit Orthodox churches and monasteries in the Balkans, the Levant and the Caucasus region, my experience with American Orthodoxy has heretofore been limited to our mission in East Texas, the Dallas-Fort Worth churches, and churches and monasteries around Austin and San Antonio. So, the opportunity to connect with like-minded folk in Missouri, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Tennessee was of great appeal to me. In every locale, I was reminded of what a small world we American Orthodox inhabit. Everywhere I went, I met people who knew Orthodox Christians in Texas that were also known to me. While on one level, this speaks to our meager numbers relative to the general population, on another level it speaks to the tightness, if I can use that word, among American Orthodox believers. And it is this last factor, rather than large numbers, that I believe will stand us well in the years ahead. Please bear in mind that these observations are those of a layman who first stumbled into an Orthodox church only 6 years ago, and was received into the faith some 2 ½ years after that.

I stayed for two nights in the remote, unoccupied home of an Orthodox friend. In time, this house and a considerable amount of surrounding acreage may very well become a monastery. There are still some jurisdictional issues to resolve, so for now, I will not venture any further about the specifics of this prospect. To my delight, an Orthodox library was already well underway, with a 1,000 plus books on the shelves, and several hundred more still in boxes. With a full kitchen and my only companions being the rabbits in the front yard, and the wild turkeys in the back, I could have lost myself amidst these books for days. But, I was expected in Minneapolis, so I restricted my stay to one day and two nights.

Remembering my time in this library, as well as a recent post by Owen, has started me thinking about the role of "intellectual inquiry" among those on the road to Orthodoxy. It seems to be a common component in the construction our conversion narratives, if you will. I have likened it to being at a beach resort, then leaving the hotel pool and wading out into the ocean. Or as I have noted to friends familiar with my previous religious affiliation, “I no longer have to check my brain at the foyer.” The danger here, though, is that by so doing we reduce the Faith to an intellectual construct, and one that merely competes with all the other intellectual constructs. Owen has wisely observed that what is often going on here is not so much a feeding of true intellectual hunger, but of ideological hunger—a desire to validate that which we have already decided to believe.

In the library

I was undergoing no particular religious crisis or existential meltdown prior to being found by the Orthodox faith. While recognizing the limitations of my sect, I nevertheless believed we had the best take possible on things. I believe it was Fr. Stephen Freeman who said something to the effect that the only reason to become Orthodox is to find Christ (if it wasn’t Fr. Stephen, then it sounds like something he would say.) This I have found to be true. On June 9th and 10th, 2003, I caught a glimpse of a relationship with Christ (and the Trinity) that I never knew possible. Looking back now, I recognize that all my subsequent actions were in pursuit of appropriating that vision in my own life. And part of that process was the immersion into the literature, beginning with the writings of St. Ignatius, which irretrievably weakened my existing theological presuppositions. Subsequent readings, if I am to be completely honest with myself, were less of a honest comparison of Orthodoxy up against Protestantism, but rather a quest for knowledge about the decision I had more or less already made. With no access to Orthodox worship, these readings were invaluable in answering my questions and doubts. But that said, my first impetus towards Orthodoxy, my resolve to pursue it, and my commitment to stay the course came from standing in worship, not from my reading. Once Orthodox, I can now swim out into that ocean as far as I can manage. But like I often advised my son, there is a time to “step away from the books.” As we mature and become more sure of our footing on the American continent, I suppose we can engage in the requisite discussions of methodology and missiology--that is, as long as we do not lose sight of the fact that the Orthodox faith is experiential, and that the old "come and see" approach will trump all others.

I had the great privilege to attend Divine Liturgy at the Theotokos (Unexpected Joy) Mission in Ash Grove, Missouri, a small, struggling old town about 15 miles northwest of Springfield. Fr. Moses Berry is the well-known priest (and native son of the area). Without directions, the church would be a bit hard to find, located on a little-traveled country road, on the outskirts of town. The day before, the church had hosted the 2nd annual Southwest Missouri Folk Music Festival. I understand it was quite a success, lots of music and food, with plenty of visitors to the church and grounds. I think Fr. Moses even sang a bit. The temple itself is not large, just a modest log structure with attached hall. I asked Fr. Moses about the size, and he replied that it was “just right.” The parish contributed much of the labor during construction, and as I result, I believe the building is paid for. The iconography was well-done and appropriate for the space. The iconostasis was of Missouri red oak.

Theotokos (Unexpected Joy) Orthodox Mission, Ash Grove, Missouri

I arrived in time for the Hours, and observed that most everyone was in line for Confession before services. All of the women wore headscarves. By the time everyone finally filtered in, we were about 35 in number. Most seemed to be local converts, though I did detect a Serbian (though married to a Missourian), and Asian Indian and a couple of Russian dancers (who had driven up from their Branson gig.) Additionally, there were 3 or 4 nuns, and I have no idea where they were from. This was Pentecost Sunday and Fr. Moses' homily was a memorable one. I have not yet lost my amazement at the shepherdic tone of Orthodox homilies. I spent the better part of my adult life being "preached at" and sitting through Sunday morning sermonizings. Fr. Moses even referred to us as "children." A nice touch, that. Coffee hour talk centered around the events of the day before and the work that went into that endeavor. Despite the onion dome, I came away with the impression that here was a group of Orthodox Christians thoroughly integrated into the rhythm of their particular local culture. There is much "a doing" these days among our hierarchs, both within and between jurisdictions. Important speeches are being given, new scandals are unfolding, significant conferences and seminars are transpiring--all focusing on the future of Orthodoxy in America. As fascinating as these developments are (and they are), I believe the real story is right here, in places like Ash Grove, Missouri.

Theotokos (Unexpected Joy) Orthodox Mission, Ash Grove, Missouri

While in Springfield, I stopped in at a Barnes and Noble, in search of a Sunday newspaper. While there, I made a quick swath through the religion section. I was surprised to see, there on the top shelf, a nice stack of Orthodox Study Bibles. I do not know if this is commonplace in other parts of the country, but it is definitely not yet so in Texas. I suppose I have mixed feelings about this. I have to recognize the role the OSB played early on with me. Mainly it was the back of the Bible that helped me along--the lectionary, learning the basics of morning and evening prayers, the psalms as prayer, etc. And even some of the commentary was helpful in getting me over some obstacles. And while the OSB has received criticism, I must say that I still use it. The criticism, though, is not what worries me here. My reservations involve the marketing of Orthodoxy as a boutique, niche religion, with the OSB presented in a collection of other niche Bibles, from which the American religious consumer can choose. Even so, I suppose I am more glad they were on the shelf than not. I pray that they will sell quickly, and that they will cause their readers on the path to enlightenment.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, St. Isaac the Syrian Skete, Boscobel, Wisconsin

Upon leaving my friends in Minneapolis, I had a long drive in store to reach my cousin's in St. Joseph, Michigan. Even so, I made time to enjoy some of the beautiful back roads of Wisconsin, including a stop at the St. Isaac of Syria Skete near Boscobel. This skete is well known among American Orthodox, being one of the premier suppliers of icons. The Church of St. Nicholas there was a log structure also, though much larger in size than Ash Grove. I was particularly impressed with the the interior of the church, and the use they had made of the space. Quite a few relics were on display, as well. The abbot was gone when I made my visit, so I was not able to visit with him. Instead, I talked with the nice lady who manages the bookstore and takes all the phone orders. She gave me a short tour of the compound, letting me see the iconography studio, as well as pointing out the other buildings on the site. I have to admit, the rest of the site did not compare with the church. For while the Church of St. Nicholas was pristine, the rest of the grounds looked like a mobile home park that had seen its better days long ago. All the other buildings were modest, aging mobile homes—often cobbled together in odd arrangements. Only later, when visiting with Owen, did I learn the reason for this. The skete apparently does a good business with its icons. But the money is not necessarily plowed back into their skete, but generously distributed among 20+ other monastic institutions. In short, they are doing exactly what should be done. Why should I think that monastics, having renounced the world, would live in anything other than humble dwellings? So, the problem was all in my view of things. I have found this to often be the case.

Christ the Savior Orthodox Church, Harrisburg

After Michigan, I found myself in the Amish country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. When Sunday rolled around, I drove up to Harrisburg and attended Christ the Savior Orthodox Church, an long-established OCA parish. The temple itself was a bit modernish, with lots of light. The church seemed to have a large ethnic component, as I would expect to be the case. The service was all in English, however. There were certainly older members present, but the church had a sizable number of younger couples, with children of all ages. I suppose there were 150 or more in attendance (eventually.) About a dozen or so Ethiopian or Eritrean members were in attendance. None of the women wore headscarves. The service was somewhat more abbeviated than those to which I am accustomed. And of course, there was the whole pew thing. Of course, I have been in "pewed" Orthodox churches before, but I have noticed that often worshippers are hesitant to use them. Everyone seemed pretty settled-in to them here, which of course is the danger, I suppose. In looking over their church bulletin, they seemed to have quite a few outreach programs and that sort of thing. And I found people to be quite friendly to this visitor. They have an excellent and energetic young priest in Fr. Stephen. I hung around for the Slavic Food Festival following services. Here, I ate my first perogie (sp.) I have heard a lot about this ethnic staple from our priest, a Pittsburgh native. I found them to be nothing more than a somewhat more greasier Georgian kinkhale, with cheese substituted for meat! My best memory of Christ the Savior was from the food festival: one one picnic table under the trees sat 3 old men in caps, animatedly conversing in Russian while at the table right next to them were 3 Ethiopian men doing the same in their language. While Orthodox parish life can be very localized, one never looses sight the global (and cosmic) reach of our faith, which helps temper our innate Americanism.

The Ethiopians and the Russians, Fr. Gregory

Three days later, I found myself in Nashville, Tennessee. I decided to look up my old friend, Fr. Gregory, who chrismated me at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Dallas in November, 2005. He is now with Holy Trinity in Nashville. I must say, the church is impressive, setting atop 10-15 acres of the most prime real estate along the Franklin Pike. When I walked into the hall, he recognized me immediately, and introduced me to his friends around the table as "the Church of Christ elder who started reading St. Ignatius." He showed me around the church and we talked of the differences between Nashville and Dallas. The church there had not the wealth of his former parish, but was a working church where everyone seeming to chip in. I was surprised to learn that the church had no debt.

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, Nashville

Before leaving Nashville, I stopped off at the Alektor Cafe and Door of Paradise Book Store, near Vanderbilt. This combination cafe/coffee house/book and icon store should be a required stop for all Orthodox travelers through middle Tennessee. I do not know all the particulars, but believe it is the effort of a Greek Orthodox priest and his family. I know there is a Greek Orthodox mission nearby. The establishment seems to attract quite a following--from students to women on luncheons to coffee shop habituties to the inquisitive of all sorts. For most, the icons are just quaint, pretty decorations. But for some customers, who knows? I wish them all the best. And I highly recommend their Russian spiced tea.

Alektor Cafe and Door of Paradise Books, Nashville

I stayed in Memphis my last night before the drive home. I suppose this was the most satisfying of all my Orthodox encounters. I attended Vespers at St. John's, an Antiochian parish in that city. St. John's has its roots in an old EOC group that came into the Antiochian archdiocese back in the day. They were able to purchase a Presbyterian church whose membership had dwindled and were ready to decamp to the suburbs. Consequently, St. John's is located in the leafy, established neighborhood around Rhodes College and Overton Park. In fact, the church is unique in that it remains very much a neighborhood church, where members walk to services. Many of the founding member bought homes in the area, and this emphasis has persisted. Today the church averages about 325 in attendance. After services, I met a St. Tikhon's Seminary student returning to Texas, who just happened to be a good friend of one of our parishioners. Again, that small world thing. This was a old-fashioned friendly church, in the way in which we Southerners are accustomed. After Vespers, a meal was served in the hall below, before class that night. I talked with a young lawyer who was a member there. He had been Southern Baptist before becoming Orthodox. As it turns out, he had been to Lebanon and Syria, as well. It seems his sister lives in Beirut. I inquired about this and he told me that she was a Southern Baptist missionary to Lebanon. Sometimes being too cynical by half, I replied, "don't they have enough problems?" He went on to explain that there were actually Baptists in Lebanon, but from his sister's au currant evangelical perspective, they were still stuck in the 40s, singing those old standby Baptist hymns, etc. Consequently, these Southern Baptist missionaries were bypassing these established groups, seeking to introduce Chinese-style house churches to the Lebanese. Like they say, you cannot make this stuff up.

St. John's Orthodox Church, Memphis

I left before class due to an appointment I had with my friend Owen, also a member there. Babysitting detail prevented him from being at church himself. After his wife got off work and relieved him, we met at the Poor & Hungry on Madison Avenue. The P&H was my kind of joint, with a clientele you'd never see in the line at Luby's. Smoke still hung heavy in the place, as the smoking Nazis have not yet taken Memphis. Years earlier, someone had drawn caricatures of the corrupt political establishment (but I repeat myself) in the city, and stapled the likenesses to the ceiling of the P&H. We sat right underneath one depicting of Harold Ford and his "Harold Ford Mortuary and Machine Shop." I enjoy watching his son on MSNBC's Morning Joe. In Memphis, this sort of thing is all taken in good stride. The proprietress of the establishment reminded me of my Aunt Polly. And I know my aunt would have been right at home on a barstool here, as she was in the ice houses on the north side of Houston. I learned that the owner was the sister of the original owner, a well-known local trasvestite, who before he died had the surgery and crossed over, you might say. Anyway, a few hours spent here, over a couple of pitchers of Yuengling lager, with my friend Owen, discussing things of a decidedly ochlophobic nature, was the perfect cap to my road trip. I'm not sure, but I believe we solved all the Orthodox Church's jurisdictional problems before we left. I don't exactly remember, now. All the best, Owen.

At the P & H

Monday, June 22, 2009

Reflections from a Road Trip: At My Aunt's

First stop on my recent road trip was the state of Arkansas. We Texans tend to give our neighbors a bad time of it. But this state offers up surprises that do not fit our stereotypes. Much of the eastern portion of the state is part and parcel of the Delta and all that implies culturally. Little Rock, despite the Clinton Library, is not bad for a medium-sized Southern city. In the north and east, one finds rich agricultural lands, as pretty as you please. Towns such as Booneville and Brinkley are as picture-perfect an example of pristine small town Americana as one would hope to find anywhere. But my destination, however, was in the very heart of the traditionally poor and remote Ozarks, fittingly only a few miles from the creepy ruins of the now-defunct “Dogpatch, U.S.A.”

I visited my aunt, who lives here with her husband, on 40 acres about ¼ of a mile off the Buffalo River. Perhaps only 3 acres of this tract lies in the narrow vale, and of that maybe 1/2 of an acre is cleared. Bears and elk come down the mountain into their back yard. Aunt Sis, my dad’s only sister, is the last surviving sibling on either side. As such, she is also my last window into the now lost world of my father’s youth in the Hill Country of central Texas. She and my uncle are holding on at age 85, in the mountain cabin they have shared for the last 35 years or so, since retiring from St. Louis. The area is now very much a tourist destination, popular with kayakers and canoeists. But it was not always so, and poverty is still close at hand here.

My aunt and I have a close rapport. She knows I enjoy hearing the old stories, and she enjoys retelling them. I listened intently to the anecdotes that came to my aunt’s recollection. I heard the story of my dad and his younger brother, left at home while my aunt and the grandparents went to town. The boys found their mother’s cutting shears and gave each other mohawks, then stripped down (a bit) and rode bareback all over the neighborhood, whooping and hollering, pretending to be wild Indians. There was the interesting story of my great-aunt’s parrot who “spoke” Portuguese. But mainly we talked much of a neighboring Coryell County family from the 1920s and 1930s. The warm associations of these people have carried forward in the collective memory of my family to this day. The Falkenbergs were German. My aunt remembers him as a giant of a man, but a gentle patriarch. He liked to sit in a rocking chair on their front porch, puffing on an enormous hard-carved pipe. She was noted for her thick German bread and homemade cheese. Mr. Falkenberg brewed his own beer, Prohibition or no. He and my granddad, whom he called "Enri," were best friends. Both were “Ferguson men,” which while putting them on the opposite side from Prohibition and the Klan did not necessarily put them on the opposite side of the political corruption of the day. The two families were in and out of one another’s homes. My aunt recalls getting a little “tight” from Mr. Falkenberg’s home brew that they passed around. She also remembers him saying grace in German before meals: “Mein Vater der kunst in Himmel…” Seventy-five years later, she still expresses regret that her oldest brother did not marry Selma, one of the Falkenberg girls. This led to another story that was entirely new to me. During the late Edwardian years, my granddad’s oldest sister was supposed to marry a young man of the community (stay with me here), the brother of grandmother’s youngest aunt’s husband. Both families were well-acquainted with one another and everyone approved of the match. But something happened and they did not marry. In fact, the young man never married and died an old bachelor. In time, my great-aunt married the brother of her sister’s husband. There were no children, and by all accounts, the marriage was not a happy one. There is an untold story here, somewhere…a tale of heartache, disappointment and resignation. I believe that there is a secret, hidden narrative—the true one—to all our lives. It is borne and acknowledged only by us, unless we are fortunate enough to slay our pride and pour it out in our tears before our God.

The stories of these farming families are fading fast. If I survive my aunt, I may be able to pass them along, but only imperfectly. It will not be my recollection, but only my impression of her remembrance. The stories I coaxed from my dad are no longer as fresh as I thought they would always be. To the extent that any are passed to my son, he will not have the context that even I had, hearing them from my dad. This is the way of all things. David Bentley Hart has recently written that “the past is a fiction of the present.” Undoubtedly so, but hopefully the fiction will not be too fanciful.

The only subject I shy away from with my aunt is that of religion. For you see, she is a Jehovah’s Witness (or in the garbled English of my Greek Orthodox friend, “Jehovian Witnesses.”) Certainly there was no tradition of such in my family. My cousins explain that whoever knocked on her door that particular day would have got her, and it just so happened that it was the Witnesses. Her children were raised Episcopalian and were largely grown at the time. Neither they nor my uncle would have any truck with it. So, this has been a solitary road for my aunt (though seemingly the Witness community provide her with the social interaction she craves.) I have been told that perhaps my uncle moved to Arkansas, at least in part, to get away from the Witnesses. The joke was on him, however. For when they pulled up to the property, the yard was full of Witnesses, there to help them unload. Apparently the hills are full of them. I would never argue with her, but there is little in the way of common ground here, other than just a general agreement about the folly of modernity. I get a bit uneasy when the conversation turns in this direction, as I know that I am being “witnessed” to. We are all seeking, and at least she admits so honestly. Lord have mercy on us all.

Their oldest daughter lives in the county seat, about 16 miles away. In my mind, she was always the glamorous one of us cousins. As a long-time flight attendant, she flew the Atlanta-Dublin route twice a week. With this profession, my cousin was able to jet here and there around Europe with ease. I now know this to be a demanding job, physically and emotionally taxing, and hardly glamorous. But even as a youngster, I looked with awe on those who traveled the world. Upon her retirement from Delta, she sold her condo outside of Atlanta, and relocated, somewhat incongruously, to the Arkansas Ozarks. While a cheaper lifestyle was certainly part of the equation, the primary motivation was to attend to her aging parents. My cousin purchased a home that is something right out of a Norman Rockwall painting. Her back yard, full of fruit trees and flowers, is home to 2 dogs, 3 cats, 7 chickens, a duck and 2 birds. To support herself, she purchased a little mercantile establishment in the nearby crossroads of Parthenon. Here, she is the sole proprietress of the Parthenon General Store, which she describes as a Mom-and-Pop operation, but without the Pop. She makes all the purchases and stocks the store herself, working 6 ½ days a week. Often she is too exhausted to attend Mass, as the nearest Catholic Church is over in the next county. Along the way, she hovers around the periphery of her parent’s lives, running interference and doing those things which permit them the luxury of living their “independent” lives. My uncle can still drive my aunt to the doctor’s office, but if a hospital visit occurs, then my cousin shutters her store and takes off to do whatever is necessary. At times this life can be incredibly frustrating, and she becomes impatient with the petty, small bickering that goes on, as a matter of course, between two people who have grown old together. But this is not for their ears, and she continues to be a daughter to her aged parents.

I contemplated these things while sitting in a rocking chair in her store. Life takes funny turns. My cousin, who spent a lot of time in Europe, with friends and acquaintances from all over, surely never imagined she would be working the counter of a store in Parthenon, Arkansas, bantering and joking with the hay-haulers coming in to replenish their supply of Levi Garrett snuff. Once, the course she has chosen in life would have not been remarkable at all, when “doing the right thing” as they say, was instinctive and commonplace. Not so, these days. But a life well-lived has its consolations, and abounds with small graces.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Road Trip

In light of the economic realities of 2009, there will be no overseas adventures for me this year. Instead, I am leaving on a rambling back road trip through the Midwest and upper South. I am excited to see some regions of the country yet unfamiliar to me. Strategically-placed friends and cousins in Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota and Michigan help ease the financial impact of such an undertaking. Visits to monasteries and sketes along the way are planned, and a brewery or two are on tap. Any driving I do is liable to include a genealogical side road, so I will probably find myself wandering through a cemetery or two, as well. To the extent that I have opportunity--and have something to say--I will try to post from time to time.